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Montauk McMansions

montauk-imageIn 1883, McKim, Mead & White designed a group of houses known as the Montauk Point Association, and Frederick Law Olmsted was consulted on the grounds and common facilities. The homes, which ranged from 4,000 sq. ft. to 7,000 sq. ft., are excellent examples of this firm’s more restrained and innovative work. That is, they were intended as vacation lodges, not the palatial Neoclassical mansions that we normally associate with the work of these gentlemen. The association and its structures are excellently described in Samuel G. White’s Houses of McKim, Mead & White. Each distinctive house, now lovingly restored, sports all of the features that we associate with what’s now known as the Shingle Style – expansive roofs, Colonial Revival trim and facades composed of all or mostly shakes. They’re all lovely and textbook-quality buildings, and I’m sure anyone reading this would love to own, or at least spend a summer in, one of them, staring off into the Atlantic.

In the book, there’s also a mid-1880s photograph showing at least seven of these houses popping up out of the open fields like mushrooms after a particularly rainy spring. So, here’s my annoying rhetorical question: Why are these dwellings different from any cul-de-sac cluster of McMansions that have been plunked down on some formerly pristine coastline or farmland? Yes, they were designed by the greatest American architectural firm of the latter 19th century. (Unless you’re a Peabody and Stearns or Richardson fanatic, and I know I’m conveniently pushing Frank Lloyd Wright to the turn of the century to make my point. So there.) But think for a moment; back in 1883, as the soil was being torn up, do you think the neighboring farmers in Montauk were muttering about whatever the equivalent, late-Victorian term was for “a buncha damned Yuppies with more money than brains?”

The same could be said for many, if not all, of the grander houses we see around us. At one point, someone thought that the Second Empire residence with the five-story, mansard-roofed tower on Maple Street was a vulgar and ostentatious display of wealth. Look at any New England or Upstate New York town common: in the 1820s, everyone was just deliriously happy with their end-gabled Federals and Saltboxes until that pretentious Greek Revival with those huge two-story columns got wedged in between Ye Olde Taverne and the Brewster homestead.

I know there’s a vast qualitative difference between an A. J. Downing Gothic “cottage” and some crappy design-build firm’s Tudor-Ranch mélange, but in 100 years hence, are the residents of East Smudgely, VT, going to mandate preservation restrictions on polyurethane crown moldings?

My grumblings have less to do with the caliber of architecture and are more concerned with development and the disappearance of open space. Don’t we all have the right to build a home to our taste and budget?

Or is it that everyone thinks that their house should be the last one built in any given town?

I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but feel free to fire back at me.

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  1. March 23rd, 2010 at 17:48 | #1

    i’d also like to believe that the presence of craftsmanship, attention to detail and quality places these homes in a realm beyond “McMansion” status; however, your point about our perspective on these homes and it’s being relative to our place in history is wonderful. i suppose it would just be foolish of me to say you’re crazy to believe those preservation restrictions are plausible, so lets just do what we can in our communities to make certain that preservation is about more than just an aesthetic. great article. thanks!

  2. March 23rd, 2010 at 18:25 | #2

    Dear Dan Cooper,

    You make a whole passle of interesting points, and it is difficult to even know where to start. For instance, when MM&W designed and built the seven houses, people didn’t come steaming out to east hampton/montauk in their hummers for a coupla days. There warn’t no hummers, no long island expressway, and no air conditioning. The way these house were used was that whole extended families, the kind that do not exist anymore, would clamber aboard the predecessor of the Long Island Railroad, and make the trip to the ‘cottage’ for at least a month during the ‘unbearable season’ in NYC. Moms and Dads and Uncles and Aunts and Nephews, Nieces, cousins and the related ‘help’ would travel to these unheated, uninsulated homes for the summer, and then the houses would be closed up for the winter.
    First point, then, is that the houses were full when they were used. Space was used by people, not to show off some bankers last bonus check.
    Secondly, people went to Montauk for the cooling ocean breezes so that “popping up out of the open fields…” is just right - nothing blocking those wonderful cooling winds.
    Third, those same houses “popping up…” look how far apart they are, and now go to Bridgehampton or somewhere and look at how closely some of the mcmansions are spaced.
    and fourth, it is precisely the point that you are looking at some mediocre design-build firms chinese gothic jewish renaissance tudor plantation splanch melange crowning glory dedicated to bad taste, no judgment, misproportion and sheer grossness.
    Finally, these seven houses were built on something close to 100 acres. they didn’t overwhelm their surroundings. McMansions are 5,000 square foot monstrosities on quarter acre lots, cheek by jowl to the next one. What is next, tenements?

    OK, so much for defending MM&W and the Montauk Point Association. Tomorrow, if I can remember, we should discuss zoning, land use and yes, disappearing open space.

    thanks for the bully pulpit

    Jon F Edelbaum, Architecgt

  3. Mary Keenen O’Neil
    March 23rd, 2010 at 18:33 | #3

    Fabulous reflection. As a preservation planner from “East Smudgely, VT”, I may add that infill development provides a easily discernable (and incredibly complex)richness to historic context. Our community is sponsoring a historic survey of Modern Architecture, and early research reflects a clear contemporary community concern and sometimes dislike for the newfangled and untried. Our nascent awareness (hear 50 years!)of the Modern, with its new methods, materials and technologies, shows that it was seen egregiously out of character nestled into neighborhoods of Colonial Revival and post war housing. Grumbling neighbors of the 1950s have been replaced by those who recognize that International Style can claim its own position. I do, however, worry that someday we might be required to protect golden arches or an EIFS parapet with orange and pink double “D”s.

  4. James Garrison
    March 23rd, 2010 at 18:39 | #4

    My comment is not as much about the disappearance of open space and replacement of older houses with McMansions as much as it is about the deplorable design and construction quality of so much new housing. I have studied and written about turn of the (19th) century residential architecture and do think about what contemporaries thought of the Colonial Revival or the other sometimes florid buildings overpowering the quaint old milk stops on the railway.

    I think there was a different aspirational quality about the better spec and purpose built housing of that time. Yes, much of it was showy, the ornament was factory made, but it seemed to be looking up, not down. McMansions remind me of SUV’s, tarted up pickup trucks, all show and no substance. These oversize houses are all empty calories, with little hope of ever becoming the focus of a preservation effort…but maybe I could be wrong.

  5. John Bliss
    March 23rd, 2010 at 21:10 | #5

    As a pristine Maine coast vacation-home owner who has a muttering farmer son and a liking for Greek Revival and Shingle Style, your point resonated.

    But it also mashes up the following hard-to-connect dots (remixing the metaphor):

    1 economics of building materials and high cost of handicraft -
    Any material can be used in the service of ugliness.
    Beauty is a cognitive human survival trait. Ugliness is learned.

    2 cheap-fuel land acquisition -
    For cow farts and viewsheds it’s always about keeping life in balance.

    3 unsustainable sprawl aspirations of next upwardly-mobile 100 million -
    Feed ‘em cake ’till they appreciate what they’re getting :-)

    4 archeology that confuses machine utility with human creativity -
    A wrong turn by the preservation movement (see http://www.intbau.org/
    venicedeclaration.htm, of which I am a signatory.)

  6. April 26th, 2010 at 20:29 | #6

    I thought you might be interested in a historical architectural model constructed by I.M. Pei that hasn’t been on display since 1995 and will be going back on public display May 3 in Oklahoma City. If you think this is something your readers would be interested in learning more about, please e-mail me! I’d love to provide you with additional materials and a press release.

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